- a book which people praise but don't read.
the past year there has been a spirited campaign -- led by a
growing contingent of unhappy-unread journalists and writers
-- lamenting the Internet-engendered decline of reading. But
the decline isn’t as novel as the recent proliferation
of jeremiahs would have us believe.
1948 the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gassett, from a brilliant
small book of essays entitled The Dehumanization of Art,
writes: “the reading public buys fewer novels . . . suffice
to make us suspect that something is amiss with the literary
genre of the novel.”
if the decline of reading’s roots run deeper than we might
suspect, in our time it is worrisomely more endemic and omnivorous.
In the 1940s and 50s, Ortega y Gassett proposed that the form
of the novel, which was driven by storyline, hadn’t sufficiently
adapted to the reader’s growing appetite for character
development, whereas today it is the medium of the printed page
that has fallen into disrepute. In fact the decline of reading
is so widespread that it is no longer beyond the pale to imagine
a day when the printed page will be added to the endangered
species list. And it is not just the novel that is being read
less but almost everything in print: news reports, op-ed pieces,
magazines, essays, scientific papers and textbooks. In short,
the printed word has been hi-jacked, co-opted by Internet-generated
graphics and videos. Since the turn of the century, the masses,
en masse, have been defaulting to electronic media
for their information and entertainment. The practical reasons
behind this seismic shift do not augur well for the great tradition
of reading. In large part because the Internet, as a tool for
accessing information, is demonstratively more efficient than
any page turning, which makes the one-click availability of
everything known to mankind a natural first choice. What this
means in practical terms is that the iGeneration spends significantly
more time on its iGadgets to the effect that reading has become
the equivalent of an ancient art.
the charge of the lament brigade are mostly opinion writers
and essayists, whose daily or weekly columns are not being read
or are being eliminated altogether and/or are being repurposed
for the Internet. In voce magna, they are mouse-quick
to come to the defense of literary classics that most people
can’t name much less read, but their first concern is
themselves. When they trek (online) to their oracles and study
the charts they see red alert.
has fallen into such disfavour if not outright ignominy that
there are persons personally known to me, who, without the slightest
compunction, freely admit they don’t read – almost
as if it is a badge of honour. Talk about turning (burning)
argue they acquire their knowledge and information through television
or their iGadgets. A friend correctly pointed out that for most
of human history knowledge was communicated orally. I offhandedly
remarked that if reading a book or two meant that you would
no longer have to live in a cave that had no central heating
and your life expectancy needn’t be limited to 33, perhaps
committing knowledge to parchment and vellum wasn’t such
a bad idea after all. As if I simply didn’t get it, he
went on to explain: “I’m a family man, own a house,
drive a nice car, and am happy in life, why should I read, what
am I missing in life?” Well, I thought to myself (conflict
avoidance syndrome), if the nurturing and development of the
ability to reason and think is directly related to reading (an
activity inherently more demanding than looking at a screen),
perhaps the growing society of non-readers aren’t doing
as well as they think. So much for the examined life.
I reflect on all the good reasons to read, I am personally dumbfounded
that people are reading less. Reduced to its essential task,
the written word is a medium that enables contact between a
reader and someone who isn’t present or is deceased. If
Shakespeare, for example, hadn’t left us the words he
wrote, we would have no way of making contact with him, or worse,
we might not have ever learned that he existed and thought profoundly
on matters of life and death. In the film The Scottish Play,
one of the characters proposes that if aliens were to discover
our planet they would name it Shakespeare.
J. D. Salinger and Earnest Hemingway in mind, let us try to
figure out why people no longer want to read, that is make contact
with these exceptionally interesting and talented figures. After
all, people pay huge sums of money to participate in séances
where the host-for-hire alleges s/he can facilitate communication
with the dead. If you are the granddaughter of Hemmingway, isn’t
it much easer opening up one of his books or notebooks than
attend a costly (dubious) séance?
(1919-2010) and Hemmingway (1899-1961) continue to command the
reader’s attention and adulation because their art, their
creations, speak to present time. Don't we all daydream of being
admitted to those privileged inner circles that form around
celebrities and distinguished people in their field? In their
day we would have given an arm and a leg to talk shop with a
Salinger or a Hemmingway. Since that is no longer possible,
but in lieu of the fact they left a permanent record of their
feelings and thoughts, we can still easily get to know them
by reading them.
the 5th to the 1st century BC, there are only handful of names
that are still known to us. One would think that we would be
curious to know who they are and what they had to say back then
– especially if what they had to say is relevant today.
And it’s so easy. We merely have to turn the page and
we hear, from one of his famous dialogues, Mr. Plato expatiating
on subjects such as virtue, the passions and politics.
on those rare or serendipidous occasions where meeting the author
(novelist, journalist) is an option, not to be trifled with
are the many practical reasons we should prefer the book to
the real life encounter. First and foremost, reading obviates
all the sartorial aggravations associated with dressing up (or
down) for the especially initial get-together. In terms of the
actual meeting, we don’t have to pretend we have read
everything the writer has written, or fear that the writer might
find us uninteresting or not sufficiently literary. We don’t
have to deal with a writer’s particular quirks: body odour,
an off putting voice, a drinking problem, volatile mood swings,
trips to the bathroom, the writer’s unhappiness over the
reception of his latest book, health problems, relationship
problems. In fact the more we learn about the writer’s
life, you would think we would be begging more for the book
than the person.
the unedited, diamond in the rough of the writer’s daily
life, what we encounter in the book, or essay or op-ed column
has been painstakingly distilled out of the chaos of his life
such that his very best is presented to us on a platter, and
it is ‘we’ who choose the hour of the day when the
moveable feast begins. We merely have to turn the page and the
writer’s style and voice (his DNA), which constitute his
world view, is rendered numinous through the words he left us.
And in proportion to the effort we put into meeting his words
(his thoughts) on their own terms, there is a meeting of minds
that perhaps no actual meeting can equal. The best argument
for reading over meeting the writer is that there are no performance
issues other than the effort we must put in to render the words
yet reading continues to decline.
McLuhan distinguishes between hot and cold media: TV is cold,
reading is hot. And what he means is that when our minds become
lazy, non-performing, the TV continues with or without us. But
not the book. When the mind tires, fatigues, the book, the reading
stops. Reading requires a minimum amount of mental effort that
cool media do not. Which suggests that the mental muscle required
by reading has been rendered flabby as a result of our overriding
preference for cool medium: television and all of its offshoots
(Internet, iPhone, iEverything).
into this changing of the guard, we must guard against short-shrifting
human nature. From our humble beginnings in the steppes of Africa
to the present, when the option is available, human beings will
invariably find and pounce on the path of least resistance.
So if TV and the Internet are more easily accomplished than
the act of reading, it is predictable that the former will become
the dominant mode of communication, and that is precisely what
is happening on our watch.
13% of readers read the op-ed section of the newspaper. Why?
Because they lack the mental muscle required of serious reading.
For the same reason, all of us, avid readers included, don’t
read legal documents or the legalese that is included in all
the agreements we sign on to as it pertains to our purchases
and subscriptions. The language of legalese is lifeless, strictly
utilitarian, and most of us can’t be bothered, that is
we lack the mental muscle to make it understandable to ourselves
– and we pay big money to trained professionals (notaries,
lawyers) who can read and write it like a mother tongue.
hypothesized that when a new medium of communication is introduced,
it results in the atrophy (self-amputation) of the extended
or enhanced physical body part or sensory nerve endings. Which
begs the question: are we presiding over -- by choice -- the
degeneration of those vital neural pathways that enable us to
read? Especially among the young, the well-trodden path of least
resistance leads to the Internet where the prevalence of the
moving image is more impactful than the printed page. Which
is to say, it is no longer the stats and specs that sell the
car, but the shapely, upwardly mobile woman at the wheel taking
a sharp corner at speed.
if reading is in deed in serious decline, it also appears there
is no telltale sign that a cure or trend-reversal option is
on the horizon. Thankfully, there is no evidence that the decline
of reading is resulting in civilizational decline. The advances
in technology and medicine upon which our collective well-being
depends continue unabated. We only have to look to the recent
rapid development of the Covid 19 vaccine. Prior to the pandemic,
vaccine development and implementation required a minimum of
five years to ten years. The Covid 19 vaccine was accomplished
in a mere 14 months. And if we should discover that among the
many scientists who worked on the vaccine that there would be
some who don’t read or read significantly less, would
it matter? On top of which there is no metaphysical evidence
that a non-reader’s life is less meaningful than the reader’s.
And there is no empirical evidence that reading less is tantamount
to thinking less? Or that the aesthetic enjoyment from reading
is greater than the enjoyment derived from conducting a complex
online operation, or mastering a video game?
continuously dwells in a state of apprehension as it concerns
the outer world which is everywhere. He endeavours to arrange
it so that he can find time to develop his inner world to better
understand his greater circumstance. Reading is one of the many
means he employs to be better prepared for the contingencies
of life. That reading no longer enjoys favoured status in this
fugitive quest does not necessarily render man less adept in
dealing with contingency and adversity. Let us recall there
was a time when the poets thought the world wouldn’t survive
without verse. So we must distinguish between the very likely
fact that reading is in decline over and against the effects
of this development as it concerns the individual’s ability
to make a better, more meaningful life for himself, his family
and society at large.
we can state with some confidence is that in the years to come,
we will be better informed on how the apparent decline of reading
is affecting the world as it turns. And we should also note,
Solway, that we are what we read as well as what
we don't read.